Even the greatest democratic leader of the last century chose his battles. While Franklin Roosevelt formed a New Deal in economics, he preserved much of the old deal in culture. The civil rights case was postponed for another generation. Tight immigration laws were enforced even when the huddled masses of Europe petitioned to participate. If there was a post-Jazz Age meanness in the air, it wasn’t limited to Washington. Hollywood, the other capital, began to enforce its code against bold themes.
The mix of material reforms and cultural austerity in those years is difficult to explain. But one theory suggests itself. There is only so much change that a society will undergo simultaneously. When the rules of economic life are in flux, people long for stability and even regression in other areas. Seen from this angle, the struggles of the 1960s could be read as the spasms of a nation trying to change too much on too many fronts in too short a time.
The question is whether Roosevelt’s alleged heir accepts this restriction. A recent hike in inflation has fueled the idea that a reaction is underway against President Joe Biden’s great government. But it is not necessarily his economic audacity that is exceptional. It is a coincidence with so many other changes.
Violent crime has been on the rise in American cities for some time now, reversing the trend for at least a generation. At the same time, the country’s southern border has been the site of fear and disorder for much of the year. Authorities there “met” with more migrants in April than in any month since the turn of the century. Then – a third source of cultural uncertainty – there is the incomplete set of issues that fall under the neologism of the day, “awake,” with all its implications for the First Amendment to Free Speech.
Even taken together, these social rumblings hardly revolutionize. Nor can the president be said to be their main author. The crime wave started under his predecessor Donald Trump. Identity politics has been driving within the Western left since the French philosophers took a post-modern turn in the 1960s.
But if the cultural turmoil isn’t all his fault, it’s his problem. Americans are being asked to deal with a break in economic doctrine as the social context changes. As if to minimize the problem, Congress is currently in the process of raising taxes and reforming the police force. These on their own would be difficult enough to sell. Biden tries both at the same time. It’s a lot to handle from a man many will have seen as a breather after a dramatic president.
The idea that economic and cultural reforms naturally go hand in hand is recent. History more often throws up welfare state builders who are conservative to the point of nostalgia in their broader outlook. Clement Attlee in Great Britain, Charles de Gaulle in France and Otto von Bismarck in Germany are only the largest cases. For them, redistribution was a national glue, not a source of abstract “justice,” and something better to change consecutively than all at once.
In other words, what Biden is trying – change against the backdrop of even more change – is provocative by the standards of not only American but Western politics as well. It helps that, given his age and voting habits, he’s a naturally reassuring figure. Don’t expect that image to last when voters start to feel plagued by events.
The easiest mistake in politics is to assume that ideas that fathom well on their own terms merge into a popular whole. In reality, voters don’t hear the notes, they hear the chord. An accumulation of reforms can exhaust and discourage even those who admire them individually. It is not Biden’s policy that invites interim reprisals of the voters, but their number, reach and concurrency.
Gustave Flaubert’s rule that a person can tolerate only so much radicalism (“be regular and orderly in your life,” said the writer, “so that you may be violent and original in your work”) applies equally to body politics. If Biden had won one of those landslides, like 1932 or 1980, when the public audibly demanded a new course, he might have been licensed for all-encompassing change.
Instead, he won in a clear but not overwhelming way against a uniquely unsuitable adversary in a different year in world history. Congress is in democratic hands only by the smallest margins. It is a weak mandate on which so much activity rests. Those who know him say that the president has survived the normal life arc of insisting on change over time. It’s a noble shift, but he can’t assume it’s catchy.